The commander of the Continental Army, Lieut Gen George Washington, wanted a professional army. He needed one to defeat the British. The militia, and the irregulars harassing the British Army, would not accomplish this feat. Only a professional army that could meet the British on equal terms could end the American War of Independence. Valley Forge provided the perfect crucible: professional volunteers, notably Von Steuben, DeKalb, and the young Marquis de Lafayette, turned the inexperienced but dedicated Continental Line into a rival to the best Europe had to offer.
During the winter of 1777/78, America’s rebellion against Britain became a world war after France declared. King George III had to worry about the entirety of his empire, no longer just about America. The expansion of the war meant that the British did not have the troops to isolate New England from the rest of the Thirteen Colonies and the “Grand Plan” was in tatters. After their loss at Saratoga, Lord Howe was recalled and General Sir Henry Clinton was given command of British troops in North America. In Philadelphia, Clinton was ordered to withdrawal from the former rebel capital and consolidate in the loyalist enclave of New York City, and if necessary withdraw further to Nova Scotia. The British abandonment of Philadelphia was the perfect opportunity for Washington to showcase the newfound professionalization of his army and test its mettle, and bloody the remaining British in America in the process. The British column that left Philadelphia was nearly 15 kms long, with the majority being loyalist civilians and wagons of loot from the thoroughly plundered city. Washington ordered the Continental Army to give chase.
Unfortunately, Washington had a problem: he was forced to give command of the vanguard to arguably his weakest senior officer: Charles Lee, his own second-in-command. Charles Lee was a former British regular officer and in 1775, Washington’s chief competition for Commander in chief of the Continental Army. When Washington was chosen, the arrogant and proud Lee was furious, and said Washington “wasn’t fit to lead a sergeant’s guard.” Lee’s hatred of Washington caused considerable political trouble in the Army and in Congress. That trouble subsided somewhat when Lee was captured in his night gown by British cavalry after a night of drinking with his staff in a tavern about three miles away from his command in December 1776. (This act probably saved the rebellion. If Lee hadn’t been comfortably having dinner with his captors during Washington’s disastrous year of 1777, his incessant politicking would have almost certainly gotten Washington replaced, with himself of course.) However, Lee was recently exchanged for a captured British general, and had only just arrived in camp. Washington really had no choice but to give Lee the command of the initial attack to force the British to battle, even though he had a number of impressive, and now experienced, commanders, such as Stirling, Greene, Wayne, and the very deserving aforementioned trainers at Valley Forge.
The experienced and tactically capable, but plodding and indecisive, Lee caught up to the British rear guard as it decamped near the Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey on 28 June 1778. However, as the Continentals slowly formed (due to confusing and contradictory orders from Lee) the British rear guard under Lord Cornwallis quickly seized the initiative and attacked. The sight of British bayonets didn’t unnerve the Continentals, but it did unnerve their commander. Lee had missed Valley Forge and his last experience commanding troops was the woeful New York campaign where American militia routinely broke at the sight of a British bayonet, and the Continental Line consistently overwhelmed by disciplined and steady British firepower. The panicked Lee immediately ordered his men to retreat, which they did in good order.
Cornwallis, sensing weakness and an opportunity to destroy a part of the Continental Army, pressed the attack. Only the actions of Lafayette, who knew the worth of the troops he helped train at Valley Forge, prevented Lee’s division from being annihilated. Nonetheless, Lee’s retreat quickly became disorganized and the men streamed westward back toward Washington and the main body. Washington, hearing the fighting to his front, thought all was well. That is until a babbling fifer appeared and told of absolute disaster. Soon entire formations were flowing past. The surprised Washington queried the retreating troops as to who ordered the withdrawal. Upon learning it was Lee, Washington grew apoplectic, “Damn him!”, and galloped forward searching for his wayward subordinate. In the scorching heat and humidity, Washington literally rode his horse to death looking for Lee. When he found him, Washington had one of his rare public displays of anger and admonished Lee right on the road. The two had words, and Washington had Lee arrested and sent to the rear.
Washington rallied the two remaining regiments of Lee’s rear guard, both of whose commanders were out of action. One was mortally wounded rallying his men when he saw Washington. The other was captured: In the confusion of the fighting retreat, Lt Col Nathaniel Ramsay of the 13th Maryland calmly sidestepped a charging dragoon, killed him with his saber, and in the same motion swung into the saddle as the dead dragoon fell off. Ramsay then rode between the lines hurling insults and challenges to Cornwallis’ entire astonished army. A dozen dragoons took up his gauntlet and subdued the bold American. (Clinton, who had finally arrived on the field, was so taken with the daring display, he later pardoned Ramsay).
The day seemed to require great personal sacrifice among the American commanders and Washington was no exception. He also placed himself in full view of the British lines to inspire the wavering regiments of Lee’s rear guard. Hundreds of Brown Bess muskets took aim and fired at the towering figure of Washington prancing, now mounted on a chestnut mare borrowed from one of his staff, in front of the lines yelling to his men. But none hit. Washington’s stand delayed Cornwallis just long enough for the rest of the army to deploy.
“Mad” Anthony Wayne had taken control of part of Lee’s former command and with his own men held Cornwallis along the West Ravine just south of the Freemont Meeting House. Greene deployed his division to Wayne’s right and Stirling on the left. Lafayette was formally given Lee’s division and he rallied its remains as the reserve.
Cornwallis was undeterred by the determined and professional looking troops to his front. He had the best the British army had to offer. Cornwallis’ men included some of the most storied and professional regiments in the service, the Black Watch and the Coldstream Guards to name just two. Cornwallis hurled them at the American lines.
For five brutal hours, the two armies locked horns under the pitiless sun on the cloudless New Jersey summer day. Temperatures soared above a hundred degrees and sunstroke killed as many as gunpowder and cold steel. Camp followers, wives and daughters of the men on the field, known as “Molly Pitchers” brought water to the parched men at great danger to themselves. One cannoneer’s wife, Mary Hays McCauley, took her fallen husband’s place on the crew, calmly ramming home the rounds, as shot and shells rained thick among the dueling cannon.
Each British assault was thrown back, and British officers were surprised to find they were followed quickly American bayonet assaults, a rarity so far in the war. Cornwallis attempted to outflank Stirling but again Lafayette was in the right place at the right time and stymied the assault. The fighting was so close, that each side’s officers could hear the orders of their opponents through the din. One British Lieut Col, Henry Monckton, was reported by Anthony Wayne as having said, “Forward to the charge, my brave Grenadiers!” to which Wayne, 40 yards away, calmly told his own men, “Steady! Steady! Wait for the word — then pick out the king birds”.
The bitter stalemate continued. As evening began, Greene’s division occupied Comb’s Hill on Cornwallis’ left. Greene managed to get a battery on the hill which enfiladed Clinton’s line, and Washington planned to assault both of Clinton’s flanks. But darkness and exhaustion prevented the attack from beginning. Washington’s coup d’grace would have to wait until morning.
When darkness fell on the night of 28 June 1778, both sides still held the field, though Clinton pulled his men back behind the Middle Ravine to prevent the Americans from hearing his withdrawal. Clinton was in command of the only significant British force in North America, and he knew if stuck around to face Washington in the morning, he would lose the war the next day. Taking a page from Washington’s own playbook, Clinton gave his men a few hours rest then escaped in the darkness. When the sun rose, the British were gone.
Despite Lee’s bumbling, the Battle of Monmouth was the first time during the American Revolution that the Continental Army stood its ground on even terms with the British Army. The excruciatingly painful experience at Valley Forge had paid off. The actions of the American commanders, especially Washington, Stirling, Wayne, and the young Lafayette endeared them to their men, and they vowed to “follow them to Hell.” There was no more talk of Washington being replaced.
The Continental Army had come of age.